Species in ecosystems and all that jazz

by Oswald J. Schmitz

Ecosystem ecologists explore how different kinds of species fit together to drive ecosystem processes such as nutrient cycling and productivity. This research is motivated by theories that assume that the suite of traits that characterize a species’ form determines its function, that these traits have become fixed over evolutionary time, and that ensuing ecosystem process are not resilient to environmental change. Here, I explore new research that re-evaluates this theory. Recent results suggest that functional traits are malleable, enabling species to rapidly respond and adapt to each other as environmental conditions change with predictable effects on ecosystem processes. These basic research findings suggest that species adaptations may impart in ecosystems an inherent capacity to weather environmental changes, thereby offering deeper understanding about which biological attributes protect ecological functions and which are needed to restore damaged ecosystems.

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